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Zhang Baohui says the isolationism of the Trump-Bannon team left a leadership void that saw China rise to the occasion. But with US establishment-types now likely to be pushing for global primacy, prime rival China is sure to feel the heat

Why China should mourn, not cheer, the exit of Steve Bannon and Trump’s ‘America first’ policy

Zhang Baohui says the isolationism of the Trump-Bannon team left a leadership void that saw China rise to the occasion. But with US establishment-types now likely to be pushing for global primacy, prime rival China is sure to feel the heat

Donald Trump
Beijing’s cheering of Steve Bannon’s resignation is ill-founded. What lies ahead may be a return to normality, that is, renewed attempts by America to preserve its global primacy. Illustration: Craig Stephens
On August 18, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, ­resigned. That came shortly after Bannon’s sensational interview with Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of the progressive magazine American Prospect, which published it on August 16.

In the interview, Bannon claimed: “The economic war with China is everything. And we have to be maniacally focused on that. If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, 10 years at most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”

Promising to use trade sanctions to win the economic war, Bannon said, “one of us is going to be a hegemon in 25 or 30 years, and it’s going to be them if we go down this path.”
Indeed, after a brief lull when the Trump administration toned down its trade conflict with China to enlist Beijing’s help on the North Korean issue, the US has started to take harsher measures to address the ­bilateral economic relationship. For example, it has begun to use Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act to investigate alleged Chinese theft of US ­intellectual property and Chinese steel and aluminium dumping. Beijing has promised to retaliate if its economic interests are jeopardised.

Watch: US engaged in ‘economic war’ with China

With a trade war looming, ­Bannon’s surprise resignation last Friday should be welcomed by the Chinese. After all, he is the chief architect of Trump’s nationalist economic strategy. The Chinese elation was reflected in a Global Times editorial on August 19, titled, “Bannon’s China Agenda should leave the White House”.

But does Bannon’s departure promise smoother relations? China’s elation may turn out to be ill-justified. The reality is that a likely demise of the “America first” doctrine, championed by nationalists like Bannon, may also see the United States returning to a realist posture in international relations. If so, it may well resume its global strategic rivalry with China.

Bannon may be gone, but tensions between the US and China will linger

The Trump administration’s foreign policy has shown a heavy influence of “ America first”. This is a nationalist perspective on US interests globally, and conservatives like Bannon played instrumental roles in shaping this doctrine and using it to redefine US grand strategy.
Since the end of the second world war, the American grand strategy can be defined as one of global primacy. Bannon and Trump jettisoned this strategic tradition during last year’s presidential election campaign, and questioned the utility of US primacy in world affairs.

In fact, they were believers in the “imperial overstretch” theory, ­devised by renowned historian Paul Kennedy, which says that great powers’ quest for global dominance results in their own domestic decay and long-term decline.

Bannon and Trump thus proposed “America first” to reorient the US, arguing that the country had to first address its shaky domestic economy and rebuild collapsing infrastructure. To do so, it needed to reduce global obligations.

“America first” has profoundly ­affected US foreign policy, from killing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and telling allies to beef up efforts to provide their own security, to withdrawing from the Paris climate accord.

‘America First’ can mean ‘America Alone’

By forsaking international leadership and primacy, the “America first” doctrine takes out the competitive elements in Sino-US relations, which saw rising strategic rivalry under the Obama administration. While Trump did pressure China to address trade imbalances and North Korea’s nuclear threat, these are specific issues that could be accommodated by Chinese concessions.

This is in contrast to the zero-sum nature of the Sino-US power rivalry. Indeed, China has used deft diplomacy to manage the impact of the twin issues on bilateral relations. By promising harsher sanctions against North Korea and trade concessions, President Xi Jinping achieved a rather amicable Florida summit meeting with Trump in April, when the pair were able to build a good personal relationship. By eschewing primacy, the “America first” doctrine has thus actually facilitated Sino-US cooperation.

But, more importantly, it has facilitated China’s rise on the world stage. America’s isolationist tendency has both undermined its ­global legitimacy as well as triggered worldwide apprehension about the leadership void thus created.

Watch: Xi Jinping makes a case for globalisation at Davos

The Chinese demonstrated astute strategic acumen by swiftly taking advantage of Trump’s neo-isolationist foreign policy. On January 17, Xi gave an inspirational speech at the Davos Forum in Switzerland, in which he promised that China would use its power and influence to defend globalisation and provide global leadership. In May, Beijing hosted a summit for its Belt and Road Initiative with dozens of foreign leaders in attendance. Xi showcased the event as China’s grand agenda for Globalisation 2.0, which sees Beijing playing a central role in global economic integration.
Beijing’s swift diplomatic initiatives have led to a qualitative change in global perceptions of China’s international status and influence. While the 2008-09 financial crisis triggered one such qualitative change in perceptions of China’s power and status, the 2017 turmoil triggered by Trump’s neo-isolationism has brought about another.

How does China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ match up against the TPP?

In barely six months, China has successfully positioned itself as an equal of the US in world affairs. ­Indeed, many countries have been urging China to exert greater leadership to fill the void. The result is that China is now being perceived as an organiser of global governance and a provider of global public goods.

Therefore, China has ironically benefited from the “America first” doctrine. Bannon and Trump’s neo-isolationism has indeed accelerated China’s rise; since they came to the White House, China has ­accomplished more for its long-held ambition to be a world leader than ever before.

Bannon’s departure and the likely demise of “America first”, therefore, do not bode well for China. It is obvious that the establishment-types are regaining control over US foreign and security policies. Trump, while still showing influences of “America first”, is likely to be swayed over time by traditional foreign and security pundits who now control key positions.

If so, “America first” and its neo-isolationism may turn out to have been a brief aberration amid the long-standing realist roots of US foreign policy. This could imply a return to the traditional US grand strategy that values global primacy.

President Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin arrive with other world leaders for a photo session during the Belt and Road Forum, in Beijing on May 15. Photo: AFP
China, as the most potent rising state, will once again emerge as the chief target of US foreign and security strategies. We may see Washington resuming the “pivot” posture of the Obama administration that sought to contain China’s rising power and influence in the Asia Pacific. Sino-US strategic rivalry will then resurface with a vengeance.

Therefore, Bannon’s exit will not promise smoother relations. While the establishment-types in the Trump administration may not pursue a full-scale trade war with China, they may embrace once again a realist mindset that sees power rivalry as essential for international relations, and inevitably treats China as the biggest challenger. A similar mindset after the second world war resulted in the cold war with the Soviet Union.

Beijing’s cheering of Bannon’s resignation is thus ill-founded. What lies ahead may be a return to normality, that is, renewed attempts by America to preserve its global primacy. China may once again bear the full brunt of US power and will, to prevent it from emerging as America’s equal.

Zhang Baohui is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. He is the author of China’s Assertive Nuclear Posture: State Security in an Anarchic International Order

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Hold the cheers